WORK/LIFE: S.A. Partridge

S.A. Partridge is a three-time winner of the M.E.R Prize for Youth Fiction and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Short Story Prize. Mine, her fifth novel, has just been published by Human & Rousseau.

What does “writing” mean?

For me, writing means making sense of my life and my perception of myself and the world around me. All writers try to capture that, I think, from the humble slice-of-life stories to the hard-boiled crime thrillers. Every story allows us to look deeper, think differently and understand more about the world.

Which book changed your life?

This is a very difficult question to answer as there is no one book from my childhood that stands out. I read everything. Our house was filled with books. My parents read. We visited the library weekly. So, growing up I was always surrounded by books. My tastes also varied widely, so in one month I could read anything from Stephen King, JRR Tolkien and Terry Pratchett to Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl and Thomas Hardy.

Your favourite fictional character?

This is another tough one. There are so many – mostly detectives, like Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes. I like strong, memorable, charismatic characters with a bit of an eccentricity. Even Christie’s Ariadne Oliver counts among my favourites for her absent-mindedness and peculiar obsession with apples. I lean towards characters that stand out, like Dracula.

What are you working on at the moment?

Two different projects, which is not unusual for me. So, I’ve got a crime novel and a young adult novel going at the moment.

Describe your workspace.

I have a desk, covered in the usual writer paraphernalia. Sadly, I don’t spend a lot of time there and mostly write on the couch.

The most important instrument you use?

My first instinct was to say but it’s actually a ruled notebook, for capturing images and snatches of conversation as well as the occasional doodle. I carry it with me everywhere, along with plenty of spare pens.

What’s your most productive time of day?

The morning, from around seven to midday. I like starting the day with a clean slate and devoting that time to writing. The afternoon is for everything else.

What do you do when you’re stuck, or not feeling creative?

I read or walk around beautiful places with some sort of historical significance – the harbour, Simonstown, Babylonstoren. I love the “old town” feel of Cape Town and actively seek out the bygone buildings. It inspires me and gets me into that creative state of mind.

How do you relax?

I read or cook. I love preparing a meal at the end of the day with a glass of wine. It’s a nice way to end off the work day.

Who and what has influenced your work?

I was a prolific reader as a child, so I was constantly surrounded by words. But if I had to choose I would say Stephen King’s early work really inspired me to write my own stories. I devoured his books as a child. It was wonderful to discover that stories could be simple things, and that you could just put pen to paper and tell a story from start to finish and not worry about all the complicated rules in-between.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Three things actually. Up the ante wherever you can. Show don’t tell. Imagine you’re writing a movie script. All three tie in together beautifully as they all require you to bring the characters to life, to add an explosive quality and to raise the stakes at every opportunity. It makes for very vivid prose.

Your favourite ritual?
When I’m lucky enough to have full day in front of me to write, I like to ensure the room is clean, I’ve had a small meal and a coffee, and that my diary is completely free. I love the natural light in my apartment. I’m fortunate to have a huge arched window that bathes every corner in wonderful natural light. So, when its quiet, and the light is good, there is nothing better than disappearing into a manuscript.

What’s the hardest thing about writing?

Finding quality time to write. By quality time I mean long, uninterrupted stretches – a rarity for me. I work in a busy office as a copywriter which takes up my whole week. Weekends are for admin and chores and seeing friends. It becomes a treasure hunt for snatches of time.

What do you dislike most about yourself?


What are you afraid of?

Failing myself and my family. That after years of striving and selfishly pursuing my dream to write it all comes to nothing and I have to start over from the beginning.

What advice would you give to people starting out in a writing career?

Give in to your ambition. Believe in your talent. Know that it’s a hard road full of rejection and disappointment but all that matters is the art – whether you make it or not.

What’s the thing you’re proudest of doing?

Not giving up.

THE EDITOR: On women’s stories

As the aftershocks of #MeToo continue to reverberate around the world, ALEXANDER MATTHEWS reflects on the role of social media and publishing in the sharing of women’s stories.

Alexander Matthews

Days after revelations that movie mogul Harvey Weinstein had sexually preyed on dozens of women, actress Alyssa Milano invited women to respond with “Me too” if they had ever experienced sexual harassment or assault. Respond they certainly did. According to The Guardian, #MeToo was shared nearly a million times in 48 hours on Twitter while there were more than 12m comments and reactions to the hashtag on Facebook in 24 hours.

The viral campaign not only highlighted the devastating ubiquity of inappropriate – and in many cases downright predatory – behaviour towards women. It also illustrated how social media can be powerful platforms to share stories, giving much-needed oxygen to previously-hidden narratives, and becoming catalysts for listening and support among those affected as well as their friends, families and colleagues.

The sharing of these stories have emboldened many women who – fearing indifference, recrimination or retribution – had remained silent until now. New allegations of sexual misconduct have been levelled against a number of MPs and ministers in the UK, for example.

As I followed the aftershocks of #MeToo reverberating around the world, I started thinking about home. South Africa has a long, inglorious history of silencing and marginalising women. Sexual violence remains rampant, with many perpetrators going unpunished.

While fiction, memoir and poetry don’t have the power to stop the violence or destroy a patriarchy that cuts across race, class and culture, these modes of storytelling can, however, inspire change and connection and facilitate catharsis, healing and solidarity.

Recognising this, in 2015 radio presenter Nancy Richards established a dedicated Women’s Library in Cape Town through the NGO she founded, Women’s Zone. In addition to more than 1000 books (everything from self-help to fiction), the space at Artscape hosts panels, launches and workshops.

Richards says, “Not every woman is born to write a book, but every woman has a story. Our aim is to encourage as many as possible to share her story, through workshops or just by listening – for her own, or the benefit of others who may relate, learn and grow from it. If it gets written we will celebrate it. If it gets published we will launch it. We will always welcome it onto our shelves.”

A decade ago, Colleen Higgs bravely launched a woman-focused publishing press. Since then, Modjaji Books has published 16 short story collections, 21 novels, and 41 books of poetry – ushering new voices into the public consciousness – often books that mainstream publishers have deemed too risky to take on.

Encouragingly, those mainstream publishers appear to have increasingly diverse lists. Some of the most buzzed-about books of the year were by women writers of colour – and dealt with gender issues head-on. I’m thinking of the memoirs by writer/activist Sisonke Msimang (Always Another Country) and outspoken feminist academic Pumla Dineo Gqola (Reflecting Rogue). I’m thinking of Kwezi, Redi Tlhabi’s heartbreaking account of the woman who accused our president of raping her. And I’m thinking of Business Day journalist Rehana Rossouw’s second novel, New Times.

New Times is about a female journalist in Cape Town at the dawn of our democracy. When Rossouw was asked at her recent launch why she had chosen fiction to explore this epoch instead of memoir (after all, she was a journalist in the same place at the same time) she said: “The stories we don’t write are always more interesting than the ones we do.”

She explained that – paradoxically – writing fiction gave her the freedom to write the truth.

The risks of speaking out remain too great for some women, particularly when their abusers marshal considerable power and influence (as they often tend to). I was reminded of this when I discovered that a friend of mine had walked out of her high-powered job at a major brand because she could no longer bear being sexually harassed by her boss. She was advised to sign the nondisclosure agreement and accept the hush money she was offered – because her lawyer assured her that the company’s all-powerful legal department would crush her if she didn’t. She could see what lay ahead – an exhausting lengthy legal battle, her reputation shattered, with scant support from those in her industry with whom a relationship with this brand is more important than sticking up for what is right.

One day I hope she writes a novel about it. Because we need constant reminding of what we might know but choose to ignore: that in the age of equal rights, misogyny is alive and well. It might be more sophisticated and less obvious – but through bullying, manipulation, cover-ups and collusion – it is rife. Shining a light on it won’t make it disappear, but it will contribute to the groundswell of desperately needed change, as we work towards building a truly non-sexist society.

Visit to find out more about the Women’s Library Cape Town.

This column first appeared in WANTED magazine.

EXTRACT: Outsiders

LYNDALL GORDON reflects on the five extraordinary women writers whose lives she explores in Outsiders.

Lyndall Godon

All five of my choices were motherless. With no female model at hand, they learnt from books; if lucky, from an enlightened man. Common to all five was the danger of staying at home, the risk of an unlived life. But if there was danger at home, there was often worse danger in leaving: the loss of protection; estrangement from family; exploitation; a wandering existence, shifting from place to place; and worst of all, exposure to the kind of predator who appeared to offer Olive Schreiner a life – marriage – when she went to work as a governess at the age of seventeen.

In a period when a woman’s reputation was her treasured security, each of these five lost it. Each endured the darkness of social exclusion. How far was it willed – how far, for instance, did Emily Brontë will her unpopularity at a Brussels school, or was it involuntary? Were the acts of divergence necessary if each woman was to follow the bent of her nature? Mary Ann Evans fled a provincial home where a brainy girl was regarded as odd. In London, she called herself an ‘outlaw’ before she became one by living with a partner outside the legality of marriage. Yet it was during her years outside society in the late 1850s that George Eliot came into being. Virginia Stephen (later Virginia Woolf) settled in Bloomsbury as part of a group. Her brothers, sister, and their mostly homosexual friends, E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey and Maynard Keynes, provided a shield. In such stimulating company, Virginia and her sister turned themselves into unchaperoned young women, flaunting words like ‘semen’ and ‘copulation’ in mixed company until all hours of the night. It was scandalous, but not dangerous. Danger, for Woolf, was the threat of insanity, bound up with what Henry James called ‘the madness of art’.
No one, of course, can explain genius. Women are especially hard to discern outside the performing spheres assigned to them in the past, the thin character of angels in the house. In contrast, Virginia Woolf explores the secret thing: women’s enduring creativity as it takes its way in shadow; in her generation and before, it did not proclaim itself.

What we now know is that after these writers’ lifetimes, families concocted myths, playing down the radical nature of these women. George Eliot’s widower presented a flawless angel; at the opposite extreme, Schreiner’s estranged widower branded her with his annoyance. The devoted son and daughter-in-law of Mary Shelley cast her in the Victorian mould of timid maiden and mourner. But voices sing out past the tombstones of reputation. The words of these five altered our world; certainly they changed the face of literature. We do more than read them; we listen and live with them.

To say I chose these writers was actually wrong; they chose themselves. For each had the compulsion Jane Eyre expressed when she said, ‘Speak I must’.

Outsiders is published by Virago. Read our review of the novel here.